People Are Awesome: See What Happens When a Bunch of City Kids Climb a Mountain
In 1999, I met Emmanuel Durant, Jr., a bright, active nine-year-old boy who lived down the street from me in a rough patch of Southeast Washington, D.C. We played basketball together. I helped him with his homework; he helped me with my art projects. Even after I moved out of D.C., we remained close, and I would come back to visit Emmanuel and his family every couple of years.
Despite his family's many struggles, Emmanuel became a success story. He was the first in his family to graduate high school; he was a generous, reflective young man who was engaged to marry his longtime sweetheart; and had just signed on to begin training as a firefighter. Tragically, on New Year's Eve 2009, Emmanuel was shot and killed while protecting his sister and baby nephews during a robbery.
In the days that followed, as his family and I sat grief-stricken around their apartment, his mom reminded me of an idea that Emmanuel and I had often talked about but never put into action: to bring a couple dozen kids from their inner-city D.C. neighborhood on a week-long hiking and camping trip. What better way to pay tribute to Emmanuel, she suggested, than to create an annual outdoor adventure in his name?
The next summer, Emmanuel's sister, brother, and I, along with a few friends, took 22 kids from D.C.—most of whom had never left the city before—on a week-long camping trip in Vermont and New Hampshire. On the last day, we hiked to the top of Mt. Washington. The amazed glows on the faces of the kids is something I'll always remember—both their sense of accomplishment and the sense of great wonder and joy they took from being in such a beautiful place.
Each summer since, we've brought groups of kids from D.C. (and now Detroit, and New Orleans as well) on similar trips. In 2011, we went to Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, then we went to Dolly Sods Wilderness Area in West Virginia last year. This summer, we're heading to the mountains of Pennsylvania, and the Allegheny National Forest. We have a wonderful group of kids that are excited to hit the trails, swim in fresh lakes, and learn how to make s'mores.
A week in the woods will not cure all of the hardships these kids face, but it's my belief that being in nature works powerfully to expand their horizons and give them a sense for all that exists in the world beyond the few blocks where they live—this is no small thing.